I want to focus on the question of patriotism. If an American child and a Peruvian child were drowning, would you rush to save the American child first? If you were in charge of feeding an international crowd of travelers stranded by a disaster, would you give the Americans extra pie? Would you refuse on principle to marry a foreigner? Of course not. In our lives as individuals we would find it unfair, bigoted, even bizarre, to give automatic preference to another American. What about fairness, equality, merit, relative need, and simple human feeling?
But when one speaks not of Americans but of “The United States of America” everything changes. An enormous collective-emotion machine inculcates in us virtually from birth the notion that we have a moral obligation to put our country’s interests first, to love the United States above all other countries, and indeed above all else, not only because it is our home—because actually, people don’t always love their home, and sometimes they have good reason—but because it is the best. We understand, of course, that the inhabitants of other countries are under a similar obligation: the Japanese are supposed to love Japan the most, and Jamaicans Jamaica. That is the paradox of patriotism: everyone is supposed to think her or his own country is ”the best,” but only one set of inhabitants can be right. (And we all know who they are. Hint: not the French.)
In the United States, Left and Right both make much of their love of country. True, they don’t agree about what makes the USA so superior: conservatives insist they protect the ”Real America,” where family farms and family values resist the incursions of Hollywood, socialism, and sex. Progressives counter with what I call Abstract America, America as the sum of its best parts: constitutional democracy; freedom of speech; Huck Finn and Leaves of Grass; fighting Hitler; shared prosperity; a general sense of optimism and openness; and, most important, ideals of social justice extended through struggle to more and more people (blacks, workers, women, gays, the disabled). America has faults, of course, and fixing them is what the Left is all about. But the faults never challenge the plot line of continual self-improvement (as if other nations have not also become more tolerant, inclusive, and fairer over the centuries). A leftist who wants to make a systematic critique of actually existing America has to tread warily. Attack the religious Right too vigorously and you’ll find yourself accused of elitism—in the Nation, no less. Suggest that bombing villages is not the way to liberate Afghan women and to “liberal hawks” you’re a cultural relativist. The self-described reasonable Left—what Michael Walzer in these pages called “the decent Left”—regularly attacks as America-hating what it calls the “Chomskyan Left,” that tiny segment of the Left that espouses a less forgiving narrative—America as an imperialist superpower, fomenting wars, supporting autocratic regimes, and despoiling the world. America-hating—it’s the ultimate, unanswerable charge.
I know what you’re thinking: patriotism is not the same as nationalism. Vats of ink have been spent distinguishing the two, but how different are they really? If I say America should run the world because we’re Number One, and you say, Well, it shouldn’t run the world all by itself, but still, it’s unique in world history because its identity is so fluid, or it was founded on ideals of equality and freedom, or it’s a fabulous generator of cultural innovation, aren’t we both saying a version of the same thing: America is superior because I was born there? If we were Romanians or Gambians or Uzbeks, we would trumpet just as loudly our unique and special way of life, our history and customs and beautiful landscapes (for which people curiously take credit, as if they put the mountains and forests there). It may be natural to love one’s country, but it’s less a noble virtue than a habit, the way people tend to like the food they grew up with, even if it’s haggis or lutefisk or roasted rats on a stick.
Why is patriotism bad for America? It prevents us from seeing ourselves the way others see us. To us, for example, the detention without charges or trial of some six hundred prisoners in Bagram is a small item in the ongoing and mostly uplifting story of American justice. That’s not how it looks in the Muslim world. We’re constantly being surprised that the rest of the world doesn’t automatically love us. We might see why more clearly if we weren’t so in love with ourselves.
Patriotism, with its narrative of progress, also makes it hard to see ways in which we’re moving backward. Our class system is becoming more rigid, not less. We imprison more people per capita than any other country—that’s new. Public schools are rapidly resegregating. Yes, we have a black president, and that says something truly wonderful about our ability to overcome our past. But it doesn’t erase the bigger picture, which is that in important ways most people in other wealthy, industrialized countries have a better chance of flourishing than Americans do. I’m thinking of universal health care; good schools; access to social services; much lower rates of violence, especially murder; much less poverty, child poverty, and homelessness; safe jobs at decent wages; dignified support for single mothers; more leisure time; less unwanted pregnancy and childbearing; and less religious folderol.
Our commitment to the patriotic progress narrative means we end up living in the past, like Italians who would rather reminisce about Garibaldi than face up to Berlusconi.
Finally, patriotism lends itself to an Us versus Them worldview that fuels our grotesque military budget and all too easily leads to war. That’s what happened after 9/11. Those who challenged the Bush administration’s self-serving account (they hate our freedom) were demonized as unpatriotic, even for saying the most innocuous, self-evident things, such as that Mohammed Atta and the other perpetrators were not cowards. Even feminism can be shanghaied into the narrative of America exceptionalism as justification for war.
Pundits usually indifferent at best to women’s rights (or in the case of David Horowitz actively hostile to them) point endlessly to the fact that American women have freedoms women in Muslim countries do not. Don’t you wonder why women in India, China, Africa, Latin America, Russia, or for that matter Utah, never enter into the question?
My Nation column after 9/11 about not flying the flag was widely attacked as anti-American, cold-hearted, foolish, and ill-advised.
I’m sure I could have written more carefully and sensitively. The tone of that column was unnecessarily prickly, and I went too far when I identified the flag with racism and jingoism, because of course it has many meanings, including anti-racism and rejection of ignorant chauvinism. But my central point was, I believe, a good one: we need to think in a larger framework than our own country and be wary of appeals to patriotism in a crisis, because when the flags come out, people tend to turn off their brains, and the next thing you know, we’re at war. In fact, that is what happened. That is what is still happening.
What if we took seriously the idea of one world? Today’s most serious problems are global—climate change, environmental ruin, the north-south divide, the oppression of women, famine, disease, and overpopulation. They cannot be solved if every country gazes lovingly in the mirror and refuses to give up any of its privileges. As Americans, we need to stop living in a Ken Burns documentary and take more seriously the fact that politically we are just one nation among many, and economically we are 5 percent of the world’s population using 25 percent of the world’s resources—a gigantic national potlatch of overconsumption and waste.
I realize that criticizing patriotism generally doesn’t go over very well, let alone telling people they’re not so great and even a bit greedy. But what has all our flag-waving done for us in the end?
Maybe that’s the question we need to think about.
Katha Pollitt is a columnist with the Nation. Her most recent book is The Mind-Body Problem, a collection of poems.